Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
Here’s something to cheer up the gloomiest Tory: the Labour Party.
Out of power for eleven years and counting. Four general election defeats in a row. The loss of Scotland in 2015. The loss of the Red Wall in 2019. The loss of Hartlepool in 2021 (in a by-election, to a fourth-term Tory government).
This year’s party conference was a chance for a fresh start. But, so far, it’s been a disaster — featuring a 12,500 word “essay” that nobody read; an absurd statement on female anatomy; and a watered-down attempt to change the party rules on leadership elections.
That last one sums up the futility of last eleven years. Since 2010, Labour has elected three leaders. The third leader is using up his political capital on trying to reverse the first leader’s biggest mistake in the hope that no one like the second leader is ever elected again.
If Conservatives don’t take the Labour Party seriously, one can hardly blame them. And yet that could prove to be a big mistake. Labour is a much stronger foe than immediate appearances suggest.
Here are ten reasons why:
1) An irreducible core of support
I’m old enough to remember when the Conservative Party was in the same position that Labour is today. In fact from 1997 to 2005 we had 40 fewer seats than Labour’s current tally. At the time there were those who pronounced the party’s decline to be irreversible. And yet, even at the lowest ebb, the Tories never lost their major party status. There was an irreducible core of Conservative support (roughly 30 per cent of the electorate) and a heartland that held out against Tony Blair.
The same is true of Labour in 2021. The Red Wall may have fallen, but there are other red walls — the big cities, the Welsh Valleys and a sprinkling of university towns. These are still standing.
2) A plausible Prime Minister
I used to think that Keir Starmer was a poor leader of the Labour Party, but a good Leader of the Opposition. However, I’ve now seen enough his performances to convince me he’s bad at both.
He is, in the words of Ruth Davidson, “a dud” — except, that is, for one redeeming quality: you could imagine him in the role of Prime Minister. I mean that literally. If he was an actor and British politics a TV drama (yes, yes, same difference) — then one could plausibly cast him as the leader of his country.
The same could never have been said of Ed Miliband or Jeremy Corbyn. So in that respect Labour’s taken a big step forward.
3) The German model
Of course, plausibility isn’t the same thing as popularity. And Starmer certainly doesn’t have the latter. But then neither did his German opposite number, Olaf Scholz — also a dull social democrat. And yet over the course of the German general election campaign he emerged as the voters’ favourite to succeed Angela Merkel.
Scholz didn’t receive a charisma transplant, he just stood out as the best of bad bunch. Admittedly that’s not the most vaulting of ambitions for Starmer, but sometimes it’s all you need.
4) Time for a change?
Tories don’t have to buy into theories of a centre-left revival to view the Germany result with concern. They just have to remember that, eventually, voters get fed up with having the same old party in power. After 16 years of CDU-led governments, it’s clear that German voters wanted something different.
By the time of the next British general election, we’ll have had 13 or 14 years of Tory-led government. If British voters decide time’s up, then the only alternative to a Conservative Prime Minister is a Labour Prime Minister.
5) A reservoir of potential voters
According to the polls, Labour is still stuck in the low-to-mid-thirties. That’s not enough. So where do the extra votes come from?
Well don’t forget the other parties of the centre-left. Between them, the Lib Dems and the Greens have got nearly 20 per cent in the polls. If Labour can squeeze that — especially in marginal seats where they’re best placed to win — then they’re back in business.
6) Brexit fade
And there’s another potential source of votes: people who voted Labour as recently as 2017, but who broke with the party over Brexit.
But how long will the Brexit effect last? Five years, ten years, a generation? Or is it already fading away? We just don’t know because we’ve never been here before.
I suspect that the only permanent loyalty among Red Wall voters is to not being taken for granted. Best not to let them down, then.
7) The spectre of 2017
One doesn’t have to speculate about Labour consolidating the left-leaning vote, because it’s happened once already.
I know that everyone except the Corbynites would rather forget, but in 2017 Labour won 40 per cent of the vote.
Can we be sure that there’s no potential for a second consolidation? Yes, it’s a nightmare scenario — but sometimes nightmares come true.
8) Coalition partners
Labour’s own nightmare is that’s they’ll never win a majority again. However, that doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to form a government. In fact, in the event of hung parliament, Labour now has an overwhelming advantage over the Conservatives.
Of the parties currently represented in the Commons, potential partners for Labour include any or all of the following: the SNP, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, the SDLP, the Alliance and (perhaps) the DUP.
How many of those would conceivably join a Conservative-led coalition (or prop up a minority government)? Well, after Ed Davey’s announcement last week, just the DUP — and they’re in decline.
So let’s be clear about this: an inconclusive election result almost certainly means a Labour-led government.
9) A new leader
Even if there’s no repeat of the 2017 scenario, there is another precedent to watch out for — 1994. That was the last time that Labour got tired of losing — and chose an electable leader.
But does Labour today have the equivalent of a Tony Blair? It does, and his name is Dan Jarvis — a political moderate, a former British Army officer and an MP for a northern seat. A sane Labour Party would have elected him leader five years ago, but a fifth successive general election might just bring them to their senses.
Jarvis has been in semi-exile from Westminster politics, serving as Mayor of the South Yorkshire metro region since 2018. Significantly, he’s now stepping down from that role. Perhaps, he’s got his eye on another position?
10) The coming red wave
Finally, let’s look far beyond the next general election — which we can do by looking at generational voting patterns.
It’s an over-simplification to say that old people vote Conservative and young people vote Labour — but it’s never been closer to the truth than it is today.
Of course, a pensioner’s vote is every bit as valid as anybody else’s – but that doesn’t just change the fact that the Grim Reaper is on Labour’s side.
One might hope that younger voters will turn Tory as they mature, but why would they if we continue to exclude them from home ownership? If we fail to turn that around, then Labour’s future looks a lot brighter than its present.